North Beach and Chinatown–two of the culturally richest, most-loved neighborhoods in San Francisco! Here, you can find restaurants and shops of amazing quality, as well as a high density of bars, hole-in-the-walls, and coffee shops. Given that there’s so much to see, these neighborhoods boast some of the most entertaining urban walks in the city. Both North Beach and Chinatown are quite compact and close to other interesting neighborhoods as well. Read on to reveal the best things to do in San Francisco’s North Beach and Chinatown.
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THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO’S NORTH BEACH
Walk along Columbus Ave
Along Columbus Ave., you will see the highest density of Italian cafes and coffee shops in San Francisco. Enjoy a cup of finely prepared cappuccino at Caffe Puccini or Caffe Greco while watching people go by. Across the street from Cafe Puccini is a well-known Italian bakery, Stella Pastry. Why not make a stop here to pick up some Italian cookies to bring home as food souvenirs!
Washington Square Park
This much-loved park is the community center of North Beach. On sunny days, you can find locals relaxing in Washington Square Park, located right in front of Saints Peter and Paul Church, known as the “Italian Cathedral of the West”. Since it is a bit smaller than some of the other iconic parks in SF, the park draws a smaller crowd than Dolores Park and Fort Greene, but the atmosphere is still quintessentially San Francisco. People have afternoon picnics, older Chinese practice their tai chi, and neighbors gather to play with their dogs here. It’s a great place to rest and relax.
Pioneer Park is located at the top of Telegraph Hill. The park includes Coit Tower (which is right at the top in the middle of the park), a statue of Christopher Columbus, the Filbert Steps and the Greenwich Steps leading down the west side of the mountain, and, from various points around the park, great views of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz Island.
I would recommend stretching out your legs and walking around Pioneer Park rather than driving around it, as it’s much more pleasant than sitting in a long line of slow-moving cars. It is about a 6-block walk from Washington Square via Filbert St. If you’re lucky, you might spot the famed wild parrots who live in the branches of the Telegraph Hill trees (though it’s been noted that sightings are rarer these days).
Climb the Filbert Street Steps
Filbert Street runs from The Presidio to Telegraph Hill where the street ends in a set of steps surrounded by delightful greenery. Take the steps either up to the top of Telegraph Hill for a great workout or descend on the eastern slope towards the bay. Either way, you’ll be soaking in sweeping views of the coastline. The Filbert Street Steps have a very “urban jungle” feel and if you’re looking to get your heart pumping, should be part of your North Beach itinerary.
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Browse antique shops for vintage finds
The antique and vintage shops in the North Beach neighborhood are not as funky as those in Haight-Ashbury, but are still well worth a visit for those looking for unique finds. Some notable shops in the area to check out: Schein and Schein (specializes in antique maps, prints and rare books), the SF Rock Posters and Collectibles (vintage rock posters, handbills and memorabilia), Rendevous North Beach (curated vintage boutiques in an airy, modern space), and Frank’s Fisherman (nautical antiques and SF souvenirs).
Watch Beach Blanket Babylon
A North Beach entertainment gem, Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon is a must-see for those who love musicals. Dating back to 1974, this is the longest-running musical in the world. Known for its satirical tone, the show regularly pokes fun at modern-day politicians and pop culture stars. The cast sing, dance, don wild wacky costumes and are most noted for their humongous/ornate hats. The production runs year-round, and tickets are available online.
Chinatown and North Beach Night Walking Tour
Stroll through North Beach and Chinatown, two of San Francisco’s most vibrant neighborhoods on this 3-hour night walking tour. Discover the spots only locals know for dim sum, coffee, and other treats while you learn about the history and culture of these diverse districts from your knowledgeable guide. Some of the things you’ll do: learn about Chinese architecture, learn how fortune cookies are made, sample Chinese dim sum and tea tastings, learn about the Beat generation, visit Western saloons, and savor North Beach’s delicious pizza options.
One of the most charming cafes in North Beach and in San Francisco! This is first espresso house on the West Coast and probably the most well known in America! Cafe Trieste was opened in 1956 and despite the time that’s passed, its maintained the authentic atmosphere, having attracted many well-known writers and artists including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, Bill Cosby, Michael Douglas, and Vincent Price. Another fun fact–Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of The Godfather screenplay while sitting right here. Cafe purists will be delighted by the simple espresso-based drinks menu, plus there is live music on Saturdays.
A block around from Italian district of North Beach comes way a casual but exclusive, little Asian Fusion restaurant (a reservation is a must). Their menu heavily consists of Asian fusion cuisine heavily focused on seafood, and their service is nothing short of amazing.
Golden Boy Pizza
Welcome to this dive-y, unassuming pizza spot that has made a huge name for itself in the local community. If you had to choose just one slice, the thing to eat at Golden Boy is their garlic clam pizza. The slices are served in thick squares and packed plentifully with fresh toppings. Definitely well worth the $5 a slice.
Founded in 1907, Comstock Saloon is one of North Beach’s oldest eating and drinking establishments. It features live jazz on a nightly basis (no cover), which makes it a super-economical option while you’re in the area. You can’t miss the old-school decor, complete with wooden booths, antique ceiling fans and a long mahogany bar. The well-dressed Comstock Saloon bartenders serves both classic and inventive cocktails and the saloon offers a daily happy hour. If you’re here on the weekend, check out their weekend brunch.
Tucked between other establishments in the North Beach neighborhood is this lively, bustling, seafood restaurant, Sotto Mare. The old school North beach vibe here is so great and inviting. It’s a small restaurant, packed with people, clanging utensils, and the sounds of chatter. If you get a seat on the ground floor, the view of the kitchen as the cooks work and prepare seafood dishes is great entertainment. No matter what you do, you will have to order the Cioppino, their signature dish.
Chinatown and North Beach Food Crawl
Discover the foods of two of San Francisco’s most popular neighborhoods—Chinatown and North Beach (aka Little Italy)—on a walking food tour with a guide who can provide more information about the city’s culinary scene than you’d get on your own. Food tastings on this tour may include items such as dim sum, handmade fortune cookies, boba milk tea, a Chinese dessert, pizza, and cannoli. Plus, visit a rooftop for a view of Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay.
THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO’S CHINATOWN
Start at Dragon’s Gate on Grant and Bush St. Take a good, hard look at all of the dragons, fish and lions on this ornate pagoda-topped gate located at the southernmost entrance to Chinatown. Also known as Gateway Arch, this is the only authentic Chinatown Gate in North America. Similar to ceremonial gates in Chinese villages, there are three passageways–two small side ones for “common folk” and a large center passageway for dignitaries. It sure is a beautiful sight to see!
Walk to Stockton Street
Take a quick stroll over to Stockton Street to experience the very strong Chinese influence in the area. Stockton’s Chinatown section consists of sidewalks teem with elderly Chinese out shopping. The area is reminiscent of busy districts I’ve visited in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many of the ground-floor stores display food items ranging from barbecued ducks and other freshly cooked deli meats to live fish swimming in tanks and vegetable/fruit fill bins displayed outside. If you want a taste of locals shopping for groceries, checking out Stockton St is a must.
Have dim sum in Chinatown
Servers wheeling around carts of hot food around the restaurant, unlimited hot tea refills—what’s not to like about dim sum? Since San Francisco is a fairly expensive city to visit, going out for dim sum in Chinatown offers some of the best value on food in the city. My friends and I can typically eat a full meal and still only pay less than $10 per person. Never had dim sum before? Start with freshly steamed BBQ pork buns, shiu mai, spare ribs, or freshly baked egg tarts. These are sure to be winners at the table.
Karaoke in Chinatown
There are so many good dive bars and karaoke bars in Chinatown! Hard to believe, but it’s actually worth sticking around til night time to check out the unique vibes here. Plus, you’re sure to interact with more locals than tourists or affluent tech transplants. Some notable bars include Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge (hidden gem, open karaoke space with lovable owner) and Li Po Cocktail Lounge (tropical vibes, famous for their Chinese Mai Tai).
Egg Tarts At Golden Gate Bakery
Coming from someone who’s been to Hong Kong multiple times (home of the egg tart), nothing beats Golden Gate Bakery’s egg tarts. There are so creamy, soft and irresistibly flaky. It’s best when it’s warm and straight out of the oven, which is how you’ll receive them. Seriously one of the best things about Chinatown! As the bakery is very popular, plan accordingly and be prepared to wait.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
Did you know that fortune cookies were first made in California in the 1890s or early 1900s? If you want a deep dive into how they’re made, stop by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown for a free tour to learn more about the process and grab a few samples on your way out. A variety of different fortune cookies are also available for purchase in their store.
Pro Tip: If you can’t get enough of the Chinese eats, sights, and culture, consider checking out Clement Street in the Richmond District between Park Presidio Blvd and Arguello Blvd. Though less touristy, this is where a ton of authentic and delicious Chinese eateries are located. Some locals even consider this the ‘real Chinatown’. Must-try when you’re there: Good Luck Dim Sum, Marco Polo (gelato) and Genki Crepes.
HOW TO GET TO NORTH BEACH AND CHINATOWN (PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION)
BUS: 20, 30, and 45 run through North Beach and drop off at a variety of locations in the neighborhood
BART: Montgomery St stop (then walk 4-5 blocks to get to Dragon’s Gate)
CABLE CAR: All three cable cars run through San Francisco Chinatown. The conductor will tell you where to get off for Chinatown.
BUS: 1 California
Get transportation with CityPASS: Save 42% on San Francisco’s Muni and Cable Car rides plus admission to the 4 best attractions!
WHERE TO STAY IN NORTH BEACH AND CHINATOWN, SAN FRANCISCO
There are tons of lodging accommodations in San Francisco ranging from budget-friendly to luxurious. Hotels tend to cost a bit more than in other urban cities, so take care to do some research before settling on an option.
North Beach and Chinatown are safe neighborhoods, so any hotel around there should be good.
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR SAN FRANCISCO, CA
- If you’re driving into the city from elsewhere, be prepared for the horrendous Bay Area traffic, especially on weekdays during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The same goes for driving out of the city! Hopping onto the bridge to leave San Francisco could take almost an hour during rush hour. Plan your drives accordingly to avoid traffic.
- Do not rent a car if you’re primarily going to stay in SF. Traffic sucks and parking is an expensive nightmare. What’s worse is that if you do rent a car, many hotels charge $35+ for overnight parking. If you’re considering street parking as an alternative, good luck because most hotels are located in metered street parking areas. San Francisco is relatively small, so most tourist attractions are close to each other and public transportation options are plentiful.
- 511.org is a great resource that will provide you with detailed SF and Bay Area transportation information. Available both as an app and on the web, it should be your go-to resource for Bay Area traffic, transit, carpool, vanpool, and bicycling information. Since it’s catered towards commuters, it’s more comprehensive than Google Maps.
- Dress in layers. Even in the summer, mornings and evenings in San Francisco can be cool and chilly due to the coastal climate. Packing layers when you head out to explore will help you stay prepared for any kind of weather. Of my 20+ years of living in the Bay Area, I have never gone to SF without bringing a jacket with me.
- Wear extremely comfortable walking shoes. Even though public transportation is plentiful, San Francisco is a very walkable city and you’re going to be doing some hill climbing while you’re at it.
- Expect fog and wind while in San Francisco, and bring layers so that when it rolls in, you’re prepared! Sure there are clear, sunny days, but that’s more common in the summer and early fall.